History will be made on Saturday next when Letterkenny compete in the U18 Ulster league final in Cookstown where they will meet Armagh.
It is probably fitting that the final is between the winners of the premier division against the team that finish second.
In a surprise move the Ulster branch changed the league play-off structure at the 11th hour to allow the second placed teams in divisions 1 and 2 enter the play offs.
Letterkenny defeated Ballyclare 27 – 0 at Dave Gallaher Park on Saturday while Armagh defeated Newry 40 – 7. Letterkenny have the highest respect for Armagh who play a brand of open rugby very similar to their own and this will ensure a very exciting final to decide the Ulster league title.
Letterkenny were made to work very hard to earn their place in the final by a physical Ballyclare side who arrived at the Glebe with quiet confidence that their big pack could stop Letterkenny where all other teams this season have failed.
A heavy pitch and blustery conditions were ideal for the Ballyclare style of play where the ball was often surplus to their requirements. Letterkenny were well up to the challenge and showed that they can play a tight physical game when required.
Joseph Dunleavy, playing at number eight for Letterkenny, was up against his Ulster u18 team mate Arron Hall who has now been fast tracked into the Ulster u20 team.
On Saturday’s performance it was the much younger Dunleavy who came out well on top with a barn storming performance in both defence and attack. The strong running Hall was stopped at source on every occasion by Dunleavy and Daniel Faulkner at first centre and this removed the visitors only attacking ploy.
Letterkenny were then guilty of getting involved in a tight arm wrestle with Ballyclare when playing the ball wide would have been more beneficial. In Letterkenny’s defence the visitors were flooding the breakdown and benefiting for the referees interpretation in this area.
Three week’s since the last competitive game was also a factor in the nervous opening and it took Letterkenny a good 20 minutes to settle into their patterns. The pressure soon told resulting in out half Peter Scot landing two penalties.
Letterkenny were now domination possession and finally got quick ball to Faulkner who drew two defenders before a reverse pass to Mathew Faulkner at outside centre. He then found Dunleavy in support and the big number 8 threw a few outrageous dummies before gliding in under the posts.
The second half saw a big increase in tempo from the home team with the ball being moved with more pace and purpose. Continued infringements from Ballyclare prevented scores and it was a real surprise that it took until the 60th minute for the referee to show a yellow card. From the resulting penalty Martin Molloy once again showed his line out ability taking a great ball at two which allowed the pack set up a maul with Dunleavy touching down for his second try and the crucial score of the day. The icing was then applied in the last minutes when Mathew Faulkner jinked his way over from 10m after a great run from full back Kevin Grant.
This was a game that Letterkenny badly needed. They were well tested on Saturday and answered all questions. This was a forward battle where the front row of David Ward, Stephen Holmes and Christopher Green were outstanding. Letterkenny scrum half Ben Khavia also deserves special mention as he had to deal with a lot of scrappy ball and also took a lot of physical punishment but still managed to give his out half a good service.
Coach Gordon Curley will be pleased to get over this very difficult semi-final and can now look forward to next week with real optimism. The final will be played on a 4G pitch which should suit the Letterkenny style of play but a more focused performance with better decision making will be required to get over a very talented Armagh team.
Team Photo: David Ward, Stephen Holmes, Christopher Green, Diarmiud Gallagher, Will Douglas, Martin Molloy, Daragh Toal, Joseph Dunleavy, Ben Khavia, Peter Scott, Oisin Toal, Daniel Faulkner (Captain), Matthew Faulkner, Adam Boal Quinn, Kevin Grant, James Roulston, Louis Carson, Connor Cannon, Stephen Holmes, Douglas Doyle, Jack McGarvey and Bailey Loughlin and Gordon Curley, Under 18’s Manager.Tags: